This little devotional article is not intended as a dissertation on slavery, too much would have to be written to give it justice. With all the recent news concerning slavery in America’s past, and frankly for what can be dug up out of the history of most every country in the world, I wanted to give a few details about slavery in the Bible and how it relates to us today as born again believers.
Slavery in the Old Testament
There were 2 primary sources of slaves in the Old Testament. These sources are the same as found the history of most countries of the world.
- Prisoners of war were often enslaved (Deuteronomy 20:10-15)
- Debt forced people or their families into slavery (II Kings 4:1)
Whatever the reason for slavery in the Bible, God’s Law gave rights to slaves. Simply, after seven years slaves were to be freed (Exodus 21:1-2).
Slavery in the New Testament
At the time of Christ approximately 15% of the Roman Empire was enslaved. These slaves filled both high level to household societal roles: teachers, stewards, administrators, barbers, butlers, cooks, etc. With such diversity, slave masters’ self interest saw their value and impact as a major link in the economic backbone of the Roman empire.
Though Roman law permitted slave masters to administer brutal treatment on their slaves , even unto death, with no consequences. However, many were wise masters and grew to care dearly for their servants’ well being. We see this in Luke 7:1-3, when “a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.”
The Bible never incites slaves to rise up in rebellion against their owners, nor orders masters to release their slaves. However, in the New Testament Paul lists slave-trading among activities that Christians are not to take heed to:
“But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; 9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers [slave dealer, kidnapper], for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; 11 According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.”
(I Timothy 1:8-11)
Paul taught this as sin to young Timothy, but he preached it to Philemon. The difference between teaching a preaching being, teaching gives fact and data while preaching does the same in exposing sin but goes on to challenge a response. Thus, Paul provokes Philemon to free his slave, Onesimus:
“Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? 17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.”
Onesimus was obviously a slave in part due to a debt, and as a debt was to be paid in full before a slave could be freed, so Paul offered to cover his debt for his freedom.
Slavery and the Christian
So, how in the world can we apply slavery in the Bible to us today. The Bible actually does this for us. In the New Testament, the slave-master relationship resembled today’s employee-employer relationship, and this is where we get our application. Paul’s primary examples are to the Corinthians and to the Ephesians.
First, Paul teaches the Corinthians not to revolt against their situation, but rather abide in their calling. Whatever their social status they were to allow Christ to make the changes in their lives in His way and in His time. Paul said:
“Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. 21 Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. 22 For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. 23 Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. 24 Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.”
(I Corinthians 7:20-24).
As a born again believer, no longer were they a servant to their master, but they were now Christ’s servant. They were to continue serving their same master, but as they would serve God. Why? They had been slaves, but Jesus paid their slave debt in full, saying, “Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men” (7:23). In doing this, the servant remains with his earthly master, yet serving him as if he was his Heavenly Master.
Paul teaches the Ephesians details concerning our relationship with our employer. Once we become an employee, we are at the mercy of the employer just as the servant was to his master.
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; 7 With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: 8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. 9 And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.”
(6:5) This relationship begins with one word that is not optional, obedient. This word applies whether your employer is “good and gentle, but also to the forward” (I Peter 2:18). “forward” means “crooked, wicked” and is used this exact way in Philippians 2:14-16. Paul is teaching an obvious lesson with a straightforward point, that it’s easy to be obedient when your boss is good and gentle, but how about the wicked.
Paul uses several key phrases to define how we are to be obedient:
- (6:5) REVERENTLY obedient, with “fear and trembling“
With zealous reverence and with a dread of offending. This is the exact manner of our daily sanctification, developing our Christian character while out of sight of our fellow believer, yet always in sight of our omnipresent God (Philippians 2:12). We do this “in the fear of God” (II Corinthians 7:1).
- (6:5) HONESTLY obedient, with “singleness of your heart“
singleness means “mental honesty; the virtue of one who is free from pretence and hypocrisy .” This is our integrity expressed in our words and deeds. This is our character, it is developed and not inherent. It starts in the heart that God sees and works its way out to our image that the world sees (II Corinthians 3:18).
- (6:6) CONSISTENTLY obedient, “not with eyeservice“
We have all known those who are hard workers when the boss’ eye is on them but slackers when it isn’t. Such eyeservice is not the integrity of the Christian. We are to work consistently, whether we are watched or we are all alone. Not with eyeservice before man but with heart service, doing the will of God from the heart, to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31).
- (6:7) COMPASSIONATELY obedient, “with good will doing service“
This is servitude that wishes the recipient well. This is servitude with a wholehearted attitude. This servitude is giving our all to our Heavenly Master through our earthly master or employer. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
After Paul defines how we are to be obedient, he goes on to give the simple reason why.
- obedient, for the Lord’s sake, “to the Lord, and not to men“
It is God whom we are really serving, not men, knowing that “whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Colossians 3:2)
- obedient, for our sake, “knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord [earn your pay]”
As servants, slaves, our master does not always treat us with dignity neither do we obtain fair reparation. One day, though, we will receive our due reward if we are serving our employer as unto the Lord, “Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24).
Whatever our earthly situation, our aim when we finish our course, is to be able to look ourselves in the eye and to say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:” (II Timothy 4:7)